Alaska DOC commissioner wants to stop easy access of illegal drugs in prisons

Dean Williams, Commissioner of the Alaska Dept. of Corrections, speaks to reporters in January 2016. (Photo by Skip Gray,360 North)

Dean Williams, the commissioner of the Department of Corrections, acknowledges it’s easy to access illegal drugs in prison in Alaska. He says his department is trying to stop it.

This month, five women at Hiland Correctional Center in Eagle River overdosed in a 24-hour period, and three men were recently charged with conspiring to smuggle drugs into Goose Creek Correctional Center.

Williams says people often think you can stop drugs from entering prisons by searching people. He says it doesn’t work that way.

“Most of these are being packed inside people’s bodies and you cannot search people’s bodies internally who are coming into prison,” Williams said. “You can’t. There are civil rights issues and just operationally how the heck would you do it? It’s impossible.”

Williams says on the enforcement side, his internal investigations unit is working with state and national enforcement agencies to track down and charge people who are smuggling drugs into the institutions. But he says that won’t solve the whole problem – they also need preventative measures. Williams says the most effective tool is keeping people busy with jobs and other activities.

“Really just creating purpose,” Williams said. “What I call purpose and jobs – having something to do. All of those things are huge preventative pieces. So when you have people occupied, there’s less trouble.”

Williams says he’s trying to create more opportunities for inmates by inviting community members into prisons to offer classes and programs. He also wants to reintroduce prison industries, like building furniture, to give inmates more productive things to do and raise money for the department to offer more options. Williams says stopping drug use and trafficking in prisons requires a multifaceted approach because different people require different solutions.

“Lots of activities. Many paths forward. Both treatment, jobs, vocational training,” Williams said. “I want it all is because what I see elsewhere is that’s how you bring down the re-offense rate. That also, by the way, helps reduce subcultures and gangs and drug trafficking.”

Williams is partially modeling his new strategies on prisons in Norway, which have minimal problems with drugs and lower recidivism rates. He traveled to the Scandinavian country earlier this fall to visit their facilities.

Williams and other statewide law enforcement officials are also considering offering amnesty to people who try to smuggle drugs into prisons. That means if a person sneaks drugs into a facility then thinks better of it, if the person reports the drugs within a short window of time, then they won’t be charged with a crime.

Click below to listen to a longer interview with DOC Commissioner Dean Williams. 

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Anne Hillman is the healthy communities editor at Alaska Public Media and a host of Hometown, Alaska. Reach her at Read more about Anne here.

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